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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 40, September 24, 2011

Bangladesh: Six Months

Wednesday 28 September 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The following Political Notebook by N.C. was written precisely forty years ago on September 27, 1971 and published in the October 2, 1971 issue of Mainstream. This is being reproduced as we steadily approach the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh at the fag end of this year.

Six months of the Bangladesh struggle has been an unprecedented experience as well as back-breaking strain for both the government and the people of this country.
Although there has always been a fund of goodwill and sympathy in this country for the struggle of democratic forces inside Pakistan, it is to be noted that there has never been any preparation to meet the type of contingency which developed in East Bengal after the massive victory of the Awami League in the December 1970 poll. Rather there was a gross under-estimation of the real danger posed by a military junta devoid of popular support, a danger which could engulf its neighbours as well.

After Yahya Khan’s perfidious attack on the political elements in the days following March 25, there spread throughout this country not only a sense of horror but an understandable urge to go in all-out support for the victims of military butchery in the neighbouring Bangladesh. It was at that stage that the government while attuning itself to the popular mood, was able to maintain remarkable restraint in not permitting itself to be involved in an armed conflict with Pakistan, and thereby let Yahya Khan declare before the world that the Bangladesh freedom struggle was engineered by India.

Then came the next phase when refugees in lakhs began to pour across the border, first the political elements and next the victims of a systematic pogrom by the Pak Army. This was the phase when the government worked out its line for the world comity with regard to Bangladesh. The focus on the unbearable strain caused by the influx of refugees together with a demand for political settlement inside Pakistan so that credible guarantees could be ensured for the return of the millions who had to leave their hearth and home, was raised at the official level. The Prime Minister wrote to most of the heads of government and it was in that round that the letter to Premier Chou Enlai was also sent. Side by side, senior Ministers of the government toured different countries enlisting the support for the stand that India had taken. Only from the Soviet Union came official condemnation of the brutalities and in a forthright manner President Podgorny urged the Pakistan President to go in for a political settlement.

This was the phase when, after the initial euphoria generated by the spectacular push-back of the Pakistan Army by the East Pakistan Rifles and other Bengali armed units in revolt, the first organisation of the guerillas was taken up seriously. The monsoon had just set in and with that came the breathing space for the partisan groups to organise themselves.

This phase has continued so far. The Mukti Bahini training has grown from the incipient stage to a regular organised level and it will not be surprising that within a month’s time they would be able to work as a real guerilla force with their established bases inside Bangladesh. Away from the limelight of publicity, the training of the Mukti Bahini has been facilitated by the irrepressible patriotism of the dedicated youth of Bangladesh drawn from practically all political affiliations which refused to compromise with Yahya Khan. It is to be noted here that the consciousness and determination of the ranks of the Mukti Bahini have far outstripped those of its leadership. Col Osmani is known to the outside world as the Defence Minister but it would be unfair to judge the mettle of the Mukti Bahini by Col Osmani’s personality alone. Much more advanced in outlook and activity are the young officers and the ranks with their unbounded enthusiasm.

At the political level, the first important landmark came in mid-April with the announce-ment of the formation of the Bangladesh Government in which two of the close lieutenants of Sheikh Mujib, Acting President Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, were placed at the helm of affairs. This was a signal for widespread demand from many parties in this country for the recognition of the Bangladesh Government. While the juridical implications of recognition are hardly understood by those who raise the demand, it is to be noted that this is raised mainly as a mark of abiding solidarity with the freedom fighters of Bangladesh.

This is the period when Indian public opinion has come to know more and more clearly the fullest implications of the Bangladesh struggle. Broadly it has recognised that this struggle is a struggle for self-determination for a national group inside Pakistan. It is also to be noted that if this struggle is successful, then other fighting nationalities inside West Pakistan, the Balochis, the Pathans and the Sindhis, would also assert the right of self-determination and thereby undo the mischief created by the British with the setting up of the artificial state of Pakistan.

Thus the Bangladesh struggle has reached a crucial point. It is on the threshold of a deter-mined struggle, no more depending on a spontaneous upheaval. On the one side the Pakistan Army is getting ready for the dry season to set in after the end of the monsoon, and on the other, the armed guerilla forces are getting prepared for a long and protracted struggle in which no quarters would be given to the enemy.

This is one picture of the Bangladesh developments. There is another aspect of the reality which can hardly be ignored. East Bengal has long been the political storm-centre inside Pakistan. It has long been a headache for American imperialism since it established its hegemony over Pakistan in the mid-fifties. While the US Government went on arming the West Pakistan authorities and keeping up the military junta in power, it also realised that East Bengal might not remain under the heels of Islamabad for long. As the movement for autonomy grew in strength in the sixties—particularly after the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict, when it was found that no amount of whipping up of communal frenzy could move East Bengal into hatred against India—the American imperialists, specially the farsighted elements among them, began to cultivate political elements inside East Bengal, posing to be sympathetic towards the aspirations of the Bengali people. At one stage, they even tried to sell the idea of an independent state in the entire eastern region of the sub-continent thereby stirring up difficulties in neighbouring India as well. What is to be noted, however, is that a large section of the intelligentsia and quite a substantial section of the political leadership were sought to be corrupted by the inroad of the dollar in East Bengal in the late sixties.

After Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman’s spectacular victories at the poll, the US policy-makers were taken aback. They found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. The reality of an emerging autonomous state in Bangladesh ultimately going over to independence could hardly be ignored by them; at the same time, they could ill-afford to alienate the armed stronghold of West Pakistan that has been mainly their own handiwork.

In the subsequent period of Yahya Khan’s brutalities in Bangladesh, this duality of the American policy has become more evident. The US arms supplies to Islamabad continued despite all the dishonest assurances given to Sardar Swaran Singh during his visit to Washington in the summer; side by side, hordes of American agencies posing as relief workers, academicians, research organisations and philanthropic bodies descended on the periphery of Bangladesh. In the first stage, their main point of enquiry was to find out all about the potentialities of the partisan struggle inside Bangladesh. Moreover, the impoverished intellectuals from Bangladesh, uprooted and confused, were sought to be pounced upon since American authorities have always calculated, though wrongly, that a liberal dose of dollar bounty could divert people from the compulsions of partriotism.

The latest American position with regard to the Bangladesh politics is to try to spread demoralisation on a large scale, to go on saying that a partisan guerilla struggle would be a long-drawn-out agony of the type that Vietnam has been experiencing for two decades-and-a-half. The idea is to demoralise the weaker sections and to prepare the ground for a political compromise in which Washington could have a major say.

As soon as the Bangladesh Consultative Committee of several parties has been set up, the American lobby has begun to attack it. The very fact that the Consultative Committee could be formed is an indication of the realisation by the major political forces in Bangladesh that there is no way-out but to carry on a determined armed struggle for independence. And it is precisely to discredit the Consultative Committee that the canard has been raised—not only by the accredited representative of the US lobby in India, Sri Samar Guha MP—that the whole thing is Communist-inspired. What is carefully suppressed in this propaganda is that the Consultative Committee has been formed at the initiative of the Prime Minister of the Bangladesh Government, and is fully participated in by the Awami League. From Papanek to Galbraith, a long procession of American egg-heads claiming to be independent authorities have done their best to divert the attention of the Bangladesh political leadership from the arena of determined struggle to that of compromise and confabulations under the American aegis.

At the other end, the American authorities have been trying to bring sense into Yahya Khan’s head, advising him to make certain gestures to confuse world opinion. Tikka Khan, who had earned the title of being a butcher even by the American press, has been removed and in his place the mild-mannered Dr A.M. Malik has been made the Governor of East Bengal; a phoney amnesty for Awami League leaders has been announced; and Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman’s trial has been indefinitely postponed. This so-called “peace offensive” is meant to show to the world that return to civilian rule is being planned for East Bengal.

It is in this background that one has to understand the meaning of U Thant’s recent report on the East Bengal developments. While our Foreign Office has unnecessarily gone out of its way to express appreciation about it, the real meaning of U Thant’s move is to create a case for the Security Council intervention on the plea that there is a threat to peace in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. If such an intervention could be put through, it will mean the freezing of the situation in favour of Yahya Khan and the scuttling of the Bangladesh freedom struggle.

It is no secret that the Americans are trying to sell the idea of a confederation. Sometime ago, it was reported that the US Ambassador in Pakistan had moved in the matter, suggesting that East Bengal could be a sovereign unit but part of a Pakistani confederation. This was not acceptable to Yahya Khan. The latest model circulated from the American sources is that a confederation with Defence alone in the hands of the Central Government, could be set up, thereby meeting Sheikh Mujib’s six-point demand. There is little doubt that in the UN lobby during the current session of the General Assembly, one of the variants of this confederation idea would be canvassed for by the Americans. This canvassing might be done even through other powers friendly to both America and Pakistan, among them Iran is very often mentioned.

The American strategy seems to be to break the back of the Bangladesh resistance through sheer demoralisation, holding out the prospect of a protracted struggle; and on the other hand, to sell the idea of a compromise in which East Bengal would stay inside Pakistan, at least for the time being. Washington looks upon the prospect of the disintegration of Pakistan with great trepidation. Dr Kissinger during his visit to this part of the world aired views which are very significant: while he could not vouch for the future of Pakistan, he emphasised over and over again that Pakistan as a regional entity would play a significant role. That is, the Americans would see to it that West Pakistan is never allowed to disintegrate; and if that has to be ensured, then the Bangladesh struggle for independence has to be halted, for the time being.

There has thus come up in the course of these six months two distinct vistas for Bangladesh: on the one hand, the militant patriotic sections including the youth wing of the Awami League and the Left forces are determined to carry on the struggle for independence; on the other, the American machinations are banking on injecting demoralisation and winning over the vacillating elements for a patch-up settlement in which the façade of Pakistan’s integrity could somehow be maintained at the moment.

It is in this background that India’s policy with regard to Bangladesh has to be carefully worked out. It will not be sufficient to emphasise only the aspect of the strain of refugee influx——however serious that may be—while appealing to the comity of nations for intervention in favour of Bangladesh. This has been the weakness of our official stand as seen from the experience of the recently-concluded meeting of the non-aligned group in the UN. Sri T.N. Kaul cannot be personally blamed for having put across that line since this has been the official line which New Delhi has so long pursued. What is important to emphasise is the element of the struggle for freedom, for national self-determination involved in the Bangladesh developments. Smt Gandhi’s talks in Moscow and Washington as also in other capitals cannot hardly afford to bypass this aspect of the Bangladesh problem.

Bangladesh poses the most formidable challenge that India’s foreign policy has so far had to face, and on successfully facing up to this challenge will depend the effectiveness of our foreign policy to a large measure.

(Mainstream, October 2, 1971)

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